Verdi: Aida (2 DVD)
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The DVD features a bonus feature of backstage at the Met with Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, Violeta Urmana, Alexei Ratmansky and MET supernumeraries, with Host Renee Fleming! --This text refers to the Blu-ray edition.
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There is so much to like about this production and I no doubt will watch it occasionally, but it could have been so much better without the interference of the video director. I would go so far as to suggest that all might not be lost and the DVD could possibly be re-released without all the offensive and unnecessary additions. How novel that might be, a non-directors cut of the opera.
Considering its origins and its setting - whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not - Verdi's Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There's no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it's certainly interesting to see something different attempted) - this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven't got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production - now over twenty years old - for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
It's a big production in every respect - and yes, I include the size of the singers in this - with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It's unfortunately a little too static - an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production - particularly a traditional one at the Met - and really, you'd feel somewhat short-changed if it didn't have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets).
You won't feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don't know about his acting ability - there's not much required here of Ramadès - but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.
Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met's Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I'd have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.
My collection includes the 1989 Aida from the Met with Domingo and Millo as well as a 2004 open air performance from St. Margarethen, Austria with Suemegi and Andreev.
I thought it was time to replace them with the new Met performance.
This is essentially the same performance as in 1989, same stage setup, costumes and props.
Picture is, of course, a lot better, no complaints here.
Sound is another story.
Soundstage of the DTS 5.1 MA track is not much wider than stereo, just the applause comes also from the sides and not only the front. Orchestra and chorus are o.k., just not very wide.
The voices suffer from variability of the loudness, depending in which direction the principals are singing. At the beginning, it is rather static, everybody faces the front and variability is limited. But as the action picks up, it gets worse. Amonasro (Guelfi) moves his head all the time and he sounds the worst. But it affects pretty much everybody.
The stage microphones are in 4 pairs at the front of the stage, aiming pretty low, I guess to catch the sound when the action is in the back of the stage and the chorus. But for the principals, no good. A dozen names given for the audio, Mix Ken Hahn (from Merry Widow and La Traviata fame).
For comparison, I inserted the 1989 DVD (4:3) of the Met and pretty much the same sound, (stereo only). Soundstage just as wide as the BR, orchestra and chorus o.k., voices just as variable. Looks like even the same microphones are used in the same positions. In over 20 years no change. Somebody must have kept detailed records in 1989 and they still follow them today.
Then I loaded the 2004 St. Margarethen DVD. Screen is 16:9, the singers carry body mics.
Picture is, of course, not as good, particularly in the wide stage shots. The closer shots are ok.
Sound is DTS 5.1 and gives quite a wide soundstage, at least 2 feet past the corner speaker.
Orchestra is a bit thin, but the voices are solid as a rock and the singing is quite o.k. The acting here is the best of these 3 performances, with Cornelia Helfricht being by far the best Amneris.
So I don't consider this Aida a good replacement and cannot recommend it. It's time for the Met to get some body microphones.
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